SHE had walked up the railroad track with Hugh, this Sunday afternoon.
She saw Erik Valborg coming, in an ancient highwater suit, tramping sullenly and alone, striking at the rails with a stick. For a second she unreasoningly wanted to avoid him, but she kept on, and she serenely talked about God, whose voice, Hugh asserted, made the humming in the telegraph wires. Erik stared, straightened. They greeted each other with "Hello."
"Hugh, say how-do-you-do to Mr. Valborg."
"Oh, dear me, he's got a button unbuttoned," worried Erik, kneeling. Carol frowned, then noted the strength with which he swung the baby in the air.
"May I walk along a piece with you?"
"I'm tired. Let's rest on those ties. Then I must be trotting back."
They sat on a heap of discarded railroad ties, oak logs spotted with cinnamon-colored dry-rot and marked with metallic brown streaks where iron plates had rested. Hugh learned that the pile was the hiding-place of Injuns; he went gunning for them while the elders talked of uninteresting things.
The telegraph wires thrummed, thrummed, thrummed above them; the rails were glaring hard lines; the goldenrod smelled dusty. Across the track was a pasture of dwarf clover and sparse lawn cut by earthy cow-paths; beyond its placid narrow green, the rough immensity of new stubble, jagged with wheat-stacks like huge pineapples.
Erik talked of books; flamed like a recent convert to any faith. He exhibited as many titles and authors as possible, halting only to appeal, "Have you read his last book? Don't you think he's a terribly strong writer?"
She was dizzy. But when he insisted, "You've been a librarian; tell me; do I read too much fiction?" she advised him loftily, rather discursively. He had, she indicated, never studied. He had skipped from one emotion to another. Especially — she hesitated, then flung it at him — he must not guess at pronunciations; he must endure the nuisance of stopping to reach for the dictionary.
"I'm talking like a cranky teacher," she sighed.
"No! And I will study! Read the damned dictionary right through." He crossed his legs and bent over, clutching his ankle with both hands. "I know what you mean. I've been rushing from picture to picture, like a kid let loose in an art gallery for the first time. You see, it's so awful recent that I've found there was a world — well, a world where beautiful things counted. I was on the farm till I was nineteen. Dad is a good farmer, but nothing else. Do you know why he first sent me off to learn tailoring? I wanted to study drawing, and he had a cousin that'd made a lot of money tailoring out in Dakota, and he said tailoring was a lot like drawing, so he sent me down to a punk hole called Curlew, to work in a tailor shop. Up to that time I'd only had three months' schooling a year — walked to school two miles, through snow up to my knees — and Dad never would stand for my having a single book except schoolbooks.
"I never read a novel till I got 'Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall' out of the library at Curlew. I thought it was the loveliest thing in the world! Next I read 'Barriers Burned Away' and then Pope's translation of Homer. Some combination, all right! When I went to Minneapolis, just two years ago, I guess I'd read pretty much everything in that Curlew library, but I'd never heard of Rossetti or John Sargent or Balzac or Brahms. But — — Yump, I'll study. Look here! Shall I get out of this tailoring, this pressing and repairing?"
"I don't see why a surgeon should spend very much time cobbling shoes."
"But what if I find I can't really draw and design? After fussing around in New York or Chicago, I'd feel like a fool if I had to go back to work in a gents' furnishings store!"
"Please say 'haberdashery.'"
"Haberdashery? All right. I'll remember." He shrugged and spread his fingers wide.
She was humbled by his humility; she put away in her mind, to take out and worry over later, a speculation as to whether it was not she who was naive. She urged, "What if you do have to go back? Most of us do! We can't all be artists — myself, for instance. We have to darn socks, and yet we're not content to think of nothing but socks and darning-cotton. I'd demand all I could get — whether I finally settled down to designing frocks or building temples or pressing pants. What if you do drop back? You'll have had the adventure. Don't be too meek toward life! Go! You're young, you're unmarried. Try everything! Don't listen to Nat Hicks and Sam Clark and be a 'steady young man' — in order to help them make money. You're still a blessed innocent. Go and play till the Good People capture you!"
"But I don't just want to play. I want to make something beautiful. God! And I don't know enough. Do you get it? Do you understand? Nobody else ever has! Do you understand?"
"And so — — But here's what bothers me: I like fabrics; dinky things like that; little drawings and elegant words. But look over there at those fields. Big! New! Don't it seem kind of a shame to leave this and go back to the East and Europe, and do what all those people have been doing so long? Being careful about words, when there's millions of bushels off wheat here! Reading this fellow Pater, when I've helped Dad to clear fields!"
"It's good to clear fields. But it's not for you. It's one of our favorite American myths that broad plains necessarily make broad minds, and high mountains make high purpose. I thought that myself, when I first came to the prairie. 'Big — new.' Oh, I don't want to deny the prairie future. It will be magnificent. But equally I'm hanged if I want to be bullied by it, go to war on behalf of Main Street, be bullied and BULLIED by the faith that the future is already here in the present, and that all of us must stay and worship wheat-stacks and insist that this is 'God's Country' — and never, of course, do anything original or gay-colored that would help to make that future! Anyway, you don't belong here. Sam Clark and Nat Hicks, that's what our big newness has produced. Go! Before it's too late, as it has been for — for some of us. Young man, go East and grow up with the revolution! Then perhaps you may come back and tell Sam and Nat and me what to do with the land we've been clearing — if we'll listen — if we don't lynch you first!"
He looked at her reverently. She could hear him saying,
"I've always wanted to know a woman who would talk to me like that."
Her hearing was faulty. He was saying nothing of the sort. He was saying:
"Why aren't you happy with your husband?"
"I — you — — "
"He doesn't care for the 'blessed innocent' part of you, does he!"
"Erik, you mustn't — — "
"First you tell me to go and be free, and then you say that I 'mustn't'!"
"I know. But you mustn't — — You must be more impersonal!"
He glowered at her like a downy young owl. She wasn't sure but she thought that he muttered, "I'm damned if I will." She considered with wholesome fear the perils of meddling with other people's destinies, and she said timidly, "Hadn't we better start back now?"